By Pedro Velazco
Western’s baseball team doesn’t have to prove it has championship mettle. The bulk of the squad is made up of players who were on last season’s championship team.
The Panthers don’t have to prove that they have heart and focus. They did that last week in a thrill-a-minute regional that saw Western beat South Bend Saint Joseph’s on a walk-off grand slam by Cameron Kuntz in the afternoon, and then clip Griffith with a run in the eighth inning at night.
No, they just have to prove they can beat No. 3-ranked Norwell on Saturday in the Class 3A semistate at Kokomo. The game is at 1 p.m. at CFD Investments Stadium in Highland Park. The winner advances to the following weekend’s state title game.
“I think they just know what they have to do,” veteran skipper Ty Calloway said. His Panthers won the Class 3A title last season. “They’ve been there. They know, as I told them, every game now there’s going to be a tough spot in every game and how you react to it is a big factor. We reacted in a positive way [last Saturday] and some times teams react in a not positive way ... backing off. Our kids, they realize it’s a 21-out game and we’ve got to stay away from big innings, and every pitch you’ve got to be in the game, every pitch, every situation.”
Norwell will test Western’s abilities. The Knights take a 31-3 record into the semistate, and own a 12-3 victory over Western from early in the season in a tourney at Crawfordsville. Norwell’s regional action was postponed Saturday due to rain, so Calloway was able to watch the Knights’ regional victories this week.
“They’re probably as solid [top to bottom of lineup] as any team we’ve sene this year,” Calloway said. “They don’t really have any weaknesses 1-9 in the lineup.
“Their best player is going to be Josh VanMeter, he’s also a pitcher and also plays shortstop. He might be the best player we’ve seen all year. He’s so versatile. He has just great range at short, has a cannon for an arm and is a great left-hand hitter. We played them in that tournament in Crawfordsville earlier in the season. He hit a three-run homer the first time we played them.”
VanMeter was drafted by the San Diego Padres in the fifth round of the MLB draft on Friday.
Norwell, the 2003 and 2007 Class 3A state champion, flashed its power in winning the Bellmont Regional on Monday and Tuesday.
“This kid, Spencer Newell, he hit two home runs from the No. 9 spot,” Calloway said. “Their 1-2-3 hitters are very qualified [but] they’ve got three sets of those through their lineup. Nobody’s an easy out. Walks are going to be a big factor. First time we played them, we gave them four walks and three came back to bite us.”
Calloway noted another big hitter is Tailur Szarenski. He also raved about the Knights’ pitching staff of Jonah Patten, VanMeter and Alex Hunter. He expects to see Patten on Saturday.
“They’re very aggressive on the bases, they’ve got good team speed,” Calloway said. “They’ve got good defense, good hitting up and down the lineup, and good pitching. Put those together and that’s why they’re 31-3.”
Western (23-5) will counter with starting pitcher Ronnie Smith. He has an ERA of 2.10 in 56 2/3 innings, with 72 strikeouts. He’s entrusted with keeping Norwell’s offense from running away with the game.
“I do not want to get behind,” Calloway said. “I think we have to stay with them, or ahead, or right with them all the way to the very end. I think this team, when [a Norwell opponent] gets down, they smell blood and it makes them a better team. That’s definitely one thing we don’t want to do.”
Marcus Pingleton leads Western at the plate with a .556 average and 49 runs scored. Dakota LaMott is hitting .354, Cameron Herr .345, and Evan Warden .340. Drew Bellus has a team-high 30 runs batted in.
The Panthers will see a lot of friendly faces Saturday while playing a game in their home county. Calloway expects a pro-Panther crowd.
“I think it’ll be to our advantage,” the Western skipper said. “I think that energizes your kids a little bit, but I don’t think our kids will have to be pumped up or motivated. I think they’re going to be there.”
Norwell superintendent Scott Mills will win either way. He’s a Western graduate and was a catcher for Calloway’s squad.